Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

White-Washing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – Should They Kill the Nigger Word?

News that a new edition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (combined) will substitute the word “slave” for “nigger” has raised a ballyhoo of controversy among scholars, educators, booksellers, and others interested in these iconic American novels.

In fact, Huckleberry Finn is the nation’s fourth-most-banned book. It has been censored for a wide variety of reasons, from atheism and antisouthernism to obscenity and lack of morals and manners. The current thinking is that the term, “nigger,” makes people too uncomfortable, and that it would be more acceptable for reading in schools if it is changed.

Let's think about the context of the book. Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn as a protest, not only against slavery but against the social attitudes that accepted it, and all of the perceptions of blacks that regarded them as less than human beings. This book is NOT just a boy's adventure story. It's more than a coming-of-age. It's a coming-of-conscience story. In the end, Huck has to choose between what is "right" legally, and what is "right" according to his conscience and newly-developed moral integrity.

If the book is properly taught, that is the message that students should be reading for. That message is much more strongly carried by using the offensive language that was none-the-less standard for the time, and that carried all of those social implications of blacks, and especially slaves, being subhuman creatures. Huck is surrounded by abusers, hucksters, rascals, thieves, scallywags of all sorts. The one true and honest friend he has is Jim. Does he allow Jim to be tried and hanged for murder, or does he - knowing the truth and that it will not be accepted by society - rescue Jim and break the law?

I admit that reading it as a teenager I was very uncomfortable with the language, since none of this was explained. I figured it out on my own, but I'm guessing that most of today's students, who no longer are exposed to some of those attitudes and prejudices that still lingered in society in my youth, would understand the protest aspect of it.

We older white folks took a great deal of the African-American experience in mid-20th-Century America for granted, even if we did not subscribe to the prejudices of the times. Growing up in a city with a large black population, I just accepted that the jobs that they filled - railroad porters, stevedores, shoeshine men, elevator operators, maids, cooks, etc. was the natural way of things. Only later did I learn that many of those people (including some who relocated during WWII for jobs in the shipyards) were professionals in many fields who could not find work in their occupations. I didn't really think about how difficult it was, for example, for African-American entertainers to find lodging in the places they traveled to for performances (or restaurants or bars to serve them), or for a black family to travel across the country by car and find accommodations and meals and garages and other services along the way. A recent article in the Ephemera Journal about the Negro Motorist Green Book - a guide that served the black community for many years - described that situation in a way that made my heart ache.

I have lived through eras in which the referencing terms changed, from "nigger' (always deprecating in my experience) to the more "correct" "Negro," which was replaced by "colored" in some areas or used more informally, to today's African-American. What has been important has not been the changing of terminology. What matters is that social perceptions have changed. Early television programs perpetuated some of those perceptions, only gradually breaking them down as African-Americans were portrayed in occupations and social situations on an equal plane with their white neighbors.

One of my favorite lines in a TV show ever was in an initial episode (the first, I think) of "Julia," in which Diahann Carroll had been looking for a nursing job, to no avail. She finally calls one last ad - to the doctor played by Lloyd Nolan who needs someone right away and indicates that she is hired. She tells him that there is just one thing....she's colored (the reason she has been turned down so many times previously) and he responds in typical curmudgeonly fashion, "Well, what color are you?" In fact, Julia was the first TV show to feature an African-American woman as something other than a domestic servant, and it became so popular that there was a Julia Barbie doll and various other themed products such as children’s lunch boxes, coloring books and paper dolls and more.

That show did a lot to break down some of the stereotyped perceptions of the era (it ran from 1968-1971). The fact that Julia was the widow of a pilot shot down in Vietnam helped to make it palatable – not to mention that Carroll was an incredibly beautiful woman and talented actress. While some decried the role as “white negro,” Julia went a long way to portray a black woman living a “normal” life but having to overcome many kinds of prejudice and bigotry that still lingered. White Americans became a little more aware of the inequities and premises that previously had existed unnoticed, they were so ingrained in the culture. One other insightful scene in the show that I remember – the young son, Corey, comes home and tells his mother that his friend called him a “name.” Of course Julia immediately is certain that the term used was “nigger,” but as it turns out, it was a word that referred to Corey’s weight (he was on the pudgy side).

Which brings us back to Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, the slave Jim and the term “nigger.” Does it belong in the book? Would it be a better book without it, or would it lose a great deal of its purpose and meaning? Should that purpose and meaning be retained as part of our history and social conscience, or should it now be buried in favor of making an iconic piece of American literature less controversial?

In 2002, Oregon residents were asked to vote for or against removing some “obsolete” material from the State Constitution. This Constitution was written in 1857 and Oregon became a state in 1859, but nearly failed in its bid for statehood because of what has been called the “Negro exclusion act.” This was a complicated matter, put to the citizens who were voting to adapt the Constitution, and with two articles (one dealing with whether or not slaves should be allowed in the new State, the other whether or not suffrage should be allowed to free negroes.) People were uncomfortable that these issues were in the original Constitution, and voted to expunge it. I felt strongly that it should be left – it was a piece of our history and for better or worse, it reflected some of the social issues that were prevalent at the time Oregon became a state. How can we understand our present if our history is cleaned and polished to reflect a later period in time?

So I guess I’m also against changing the terms that Twain very carefully used in his books, for these very reasons of historocity and social implication.


A Sower said...

This reminds me of a story a Japanese friend of mine who had been relocated when a child told me. She had three children, a boy and two girls. The boy was the youngest, and at the time we were talking, he was about 7. The family lived in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles,which was pretty well integrated, but still had a lot of Asians. My friend's son played wit another Japanese boy from around the corner. One day my friend was floored when she saw the boys playing "war," as boys often do. She told me she heard her son tell his friend, "You be the Jap and I'll be American."

Needless to say, my friend reacted to "Jap" the way black Americans react to the "n" word, and was shocked to hear her own son using it casually without having any idea what it meant. To him it was just a way of differentiating one side from the other in a game. He had no cultural context to put it in.

Lee in Oregon said...

Isn't it wonderful when the pejorative meanings of words are lost? Think of the many that have been used - even in my lifeitme: kike, kraut, greaser, spick, slant, gook, and so on and on. Most young people today would have no reaction to them at all. Thank goodness. But of course, others come along to take their place. The moment I hear pejorative labels I cringe, knowing that some new brand of hatred or prejudice is being absorbed by the impressionable.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for this post, Lee. I agree, sometimes we need to be shocked so we'll avoid repeating the past. Please don't tell the censors about "Roots," which I read earlier this year and which woke a lot of people up when it came out, or "My folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery," a compilation of oral histories I just finished reading.

Velma said...

i was called for jury duty. murder. i was called to sit and answer interminable questions. unfortunately i teach emotionally disturbed students, the trial commenced when school would. i explained my situation, was eventually released. but, in the mean time, the weasel of a lawyer was describing things that might make a juror prejudiced against the accused. he kept saying "the n word". i didn't know, being one who uses harsh language for harsh things, i asked (in front of a couple hundred people) what he meant. he could not bring himself to say "nigger". he had to hint and got even more weird. once i figured it out, i realized i could not be fair in a court where language, quotations, would be rephrased for my gentle womanly ears.